Pay the piper, who takes them away, to whom you owe so much
When I was young, middle-school age, I went through a talk-on-the-phone all night period. When you're young you tend to do such things, you are foolish enough to think that you can talk for that long, buried between your blankets with the warmth of the voice on the other end of the telephone--oh! to be so young. After these late night conversations I'd venture out to return the phone to its cradle. Sometimes I'd find my dad there, lying on the couch in the living room, curled up in a chair, the blue light of the television flickering across his face. It wasn't anything terribly bad. My mother slept all night; my father didn't, and when he was awake he'd get up, leave her in bed and occupy himself until he could go to sleep. My grandfather did the same thing.
There's a sense of desolation in the early hours of the morning. Not the party early hours of the morning, when the world is fuzzy and brightly colored--no, this is the early-morning when you are alone, and things are quiet, and shadows are shadows and there's nothing out there but yourself and colored pictures, the whole wide world. Tired? I slept so often, then, I didn't need to sleep anymore. Don't you wish you could be as young and as passionate as you were back then, that you could be as happy, even as sad? Now I have watched them roll their lives up in high heels and revolving doors, throw themselves into desks and empty television screens. There is some great feeling of desolation that comes over you, in the night, when you are so afraid of being alone that you turn on the television to keep you company.
The Captain was like that, in a way.
The problem was that she preyed on your doubts. She was so good with children, so, so very good with children. Her daycare overflowed. Children under her took up music, reading, maths, sciences, and excelled. She turned out prodigies at a shocking rate, while somehow escaping the label herself. She had a certain type of children she took on: forgotten children of busy parents. The children you saw at school, two hours after it had let out, waiting for their parents, patiently doing their homework in the little corner out of the wind. Children of parents who loved their jobs, who were prestigious, ambitious. It was like she wanted to fill the void in their lives, wanted to become their parents and care about them like their real parents never did...and she did. She was better at it than they were.
I've worked daycares. I love children, all the children, and that's why I know these things. Parents do not give love to children; they receive it, also. They need it, need acceptance and respect and admiration from their children. The Captain said, without ever saying anything, that this is their weakness: their need to be given love in return. The Captain, you see, never needed to be given love in return. She gave, and gave, and gave, and gave, and the children ate it up. They reflected it back at her, of course, but she was like a mirror who just focused everything back on you. She was never physical with her discipline. She never hit, or slapped, or spanked. The Captain would deal with tantrums by removing them. She would take the rest of the children from the room and turn the lights out, lock the door, and check back on the child every ten minutes until they were calm, giving them a final ten minutes to calm down. Children emerged from that dark room crying, clinging to her knees, apologizing, promising to practice their piano or read their lesson or never fight again. When she started a school from her daycare it filled up immediately, with parents not daring to question the ridiculous price tag. She called it St. John's School for Young Children. They called it Genius School.
She started taking them on trips, eventually.
She was a pilot, Class A-air-certified. She put on the leather cap and goggles and boots and red scarf and took them up on planes, short day trips to the zoo, always with permission slips and me, her desk girl, as an accomplice, as a witness. She would instruct as she flew. And even though she was occupied, no children ever became rowdy, every stood up or became unruly on these trips. They listened like angels--behaved, like angels.
Tuesday the twenty second of January I was out sick. She had a strict no sickness-policy, because with kids these things spread like wildfire. Hand sanitizer at every door. Tuesday the twenty-second of January I lay in bed all day, eyes swollen and puffy, nose dripping, a slow, inexorable trickle that sapped my strength, my senses. I laid in bed with CNN on, all day, dozing in and out of consciousness. I should have called the school, at three thirty, to check on the children and the Captain, but I slept on through.
At three thirty on the twenty-second of January parents stopped at St. John's School For Young Children, the Genius School, stepped inside its red front door to the coat rack where, this morning, had hung twenty-three tiny coats, twenty-three little backpacks, forty-six pairs of shoes. They stepped into the red front door to find a no coats on hooks, no backpacks, no shoes. There were no containers of hand sanitizer in the rooms, no crayon portraits on walls, no little pianos or books, no bookshelves or couches or beanbags or Captain's old rocking chair, no coat-tree of red capes and silly hats for storytime. My receptionist's desk was gone, the blue rolling chair and roster of names gone with it. One roll of toilet paper remained in the bathroom. Light fixtures had been taken away, leaving only bare bulbs. In one closet, a discarded ballpoint pen lurked in the shadow. In the middle of the floor was a white notecard, bearing the letters EMS in thick black lettering...but that, that was all.
The Captain had last been seen walking the children, coats and backpacks in tow, to the airport where her little plane was, where they'd been many times before. All the little shoeprints led there, forty-six tiny sneakers, with Dora the Explorer and Spiderman and Spongebob Squarepants and Transformers, all found carefully tied to the chain-link fence at the airport. The plane was gone. The children were gone. The Captain was gone.
The parents were saddened, heartbroken, angry, despairing, horrified. A search was put out, for the little plane, circling the skies, and the hope in the parents' eyes was that it was at the zoo, that the Captain had just forgotten, that this time, her faint little smile and long curly hair would reappear with their children, entrusted for so long to someone else's love. In a way, it was her they were waiting for, hoping for, hoping that this angel of judgment they'd come to rely on would come back, decree them innocent, free them of their worry and their guilt. A day passed. I was questioned, repeatedly, my story told so many times I could recite it from memory. The parents cornered me, demanded answers, but I had none. What did EMS mean? Why was the daycare empty? Where were their children? Where, where, oh where were their children?
gone, I thought, like the rats.
They moved out of the city. the city is not a nice place to raise children, they said, their faces dark, and they should have known, they should have known...they walked away looking angry but you didn't see the shame in their faces, like I did, the shame and the fear, the guilt that this was something they deserved, something they were secretly hoping they would happen; that someone would come who loved their children more than they did, would take them away. It wasn't a great surprise when someone finally did.
I did not say this to anyone. I went home and sat on my bed, staring blankly at the report on CNN, the picture of the rows of shoes. I sat there until it was all dark around me, until the flickering of the television was the only light on my face, and waited until even that turned off.
Then the Captain came for me, too.